Guest Blog: Light in the Dark Ages

There have been many attempts at reconstructing Viking-age houses and halls of varying types and sizes, and a variety of construction techniques. All of these have a few things in common, but most notably they are pretty dark spaces. At night time and during feasts and banquets, light was presumably provided by fires, lamps, and possibly candles. These provide a surprising amount of light, but are quite a contrast to brighter modern electric lighting. In this environment, some of the material culture we associate with higher status ‘Vikings’ takes on a very different light; literally!

01-Belts and armrings by lamp light
Belt fittings, seax sheath fittings, armrings, and pendants shining by the light of Viking-Age oil lamps

I have been involved in making reproduction items for many years, but unlike many experimental archaeologists, one of my primary interests in recreation is in aesthetics; particularly trying to understand what appearance or effect these people were trying to create. From this perspective, the environments in which the items were used and seen become key, especially as most modern scholars and enthusiasts are more familiar with these objects in daylight, but I have always been most fascinated by how they behave at night.

02-Objects by candlelight
The beads, oval brooches, and belt buckle really catch the candle light, as do the glass vessels and tin-foil decoration of the Tating ware pottery

All these higher status objects of the Viking-age, be they glass beads and vessels, copper-alloy knife sheaths, belt fittings, and brooches, silver and gold jewellery, metal drinking horn fittings or inlaid sword hilts, have one common feature; they catch the scant light present and reflect it back out. This is also true of other objects like the copper-alloy and tinned fittings on small chests and boxes, tin-foil on Tating ware pottery, or silver wire used as brocade on tablet weaving, and for embroidery and posaments on clothing. In these dark spaces, with the flickering yellow hue of living flames, these objects make their wearers very visible people, and create a sharp visual distinction between those with, and those without.

03-Gaming by Firelight
Mother and son playing hnefatafl by fire and candle light, with the beads and brooches shining

This starts to give a real sense of what impression these people were trying to create. In a world of earth tones, natural materials, and often in the dark, they hankered for brightness, colour, and light. The visual effect this created when added to the intoxicating, and probably intoxicated, environment of smells, tastes, verses, stories, and music is captivating!

Adam Parsons

Adam has worked as a professional archaeologist for the last 14 years, and has been involved in numerous publications, including co-authoring Shadows in the Sand: Excavation of a Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria. He has been a living history enthusiast, and experimental archaeologist for 18 years. For more information and examples of the reproductions I make visit www.blueaxereproductions.com

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